Food Logging: The What, Why, and How to Get Client Results
Too often, eating is an unconscious act. By taking the time to track your daily food intake or encouraging clients to track theirs, you bring awareness to those overlooked eating habits. This simple act, done over time, can help you or your clients identify and understand when, where, and with whom you make the best and worst food choices.
But a food log is more than just a planning tool to keep you out of trouble. In addition to counting calories, a food log can help you track your macronutrients and micronutrients. We’ve all been told to eat a balanced diet, but it’s hard to understand what that is until you start to track what each meal looks like and how each food item is broken down into its component macro- and micronutrients. Knowing this information makes it easier to fill in nutrition gaps with better food choices.
Likewise, getting clients to understand macros can help them lose weight. In our article, Losing Weight Too Fast: What are the long-term results?, author Dan Gastelu warns against crash diets (1200 kcal or less per day) stating they are unhealthy and unsustainable. It is much healthier to gradually decrease your caloric intake while gradually increasing your physical activity. The ISSA recommends the zig-zag method for carbohydrate intake to fuel intense physical activity and support weight loss. A food journal will help clients stay on track.
Behavior vs Goals: Cognitive Dissonance
The major benefit of a food log is the insight it provides – not to you, but to your client – regarding their goals and behaviors. Perhaps you have a new client who is no stranger to dieting. He says he has tried every diet plan on Google and swears he follows each plan to the letter. You see him squirm a bit or perhaps he looks off in the distance as he adds this last statement. Your client, although he wants to be a good dieter, honestly hasn’t made it past day one on any of the diets he’s tried. This is a difficult place for him to be, but it is also the perfect point for you to come alongside and help him discover which behaviors are sabotaging his results. Enter the concept of cognitive dissonance.
In psychology, cognitive dissonance is a feeling of internal conflict or discomfort when one’s beliefs conflict with their thoughts or actions. Your client knows they shouldn’t eat that jumbo muffin at the coffee shop, but they do anyway and then immediately feel horrible about it. According to ChangingMinds.org (2018), there are three choices one can make to reduce the discomfort of dissonance:
- Change their behavior.
- Justify their behavior by changing the conflicting cognition.
- Justify their behavior by adding new cognitions.
The goal of a food journal is to empower your client to change their behavior, not justify it.
The same ChangingMinds.org article states that “dissonance is most powerful when it is about our self-image… If an action has been completed and cannot be undone, then the after-the-fact dissonance compels us to change our beliefs.” This is perhaps why a client will say to you, “my genes are bad,” or that they have always had a slow metabolism. Rather than feeling like a failure, they change their beliefs to match their outcomes.
What Should I Write in a Food Journal?
When it comes to a daily food log, the quantity of information isn’t as important as the quality of information. So, let’s take a moment to talk about how and what you need to track.
What to Log
- Time: What time of day you eat the most calories? How often do you eat?
- Environment: Where were you? Who was with you? Did someone pay for your meal?
- Emotions: How did you feel?
- Ingredients: When cooking at home, track each ingredient and simply divide by the number of servings to determine your total intake.
- Condiments: Peanut butter, mayonnaise, dressing, etc. It’s easy to underestimate the serving size of these toppings.
- Water: You can track this or leave it out, it depends on your goals.
- Exercise: You don’t have to track your physical activity, but remember that your “net calories per day” will be the most important factor in improving or maintaining your body composition the healthy way.
How to Log Your Food
Here are a few tips to make food logging a better experience.
Log Food as You Eat
Again, bringing awareness to your eating habits is important. When your favorite foods are set in front of you, it’s easy to forget about your goals and just dig in. So pause, take a deep breath, whip out your food log, and write it down.
Take a Photo
Take a photo of your plate—with your hand in the photo, palm up. Why? Measuring portion sizes is tedious, especially if you’re short on time. The ISSA Specialist in Fitness Nutrition textbook states, “a portion size of protein is visually about the size of the palm of your hand, between 20 and 30g.” You can also measure carbs with a cupped hand and servings of fat with your thumb.
A Paper Food Log vs. an App
Research has found that apps are generally faster and easier to use than paper food journals and some provide immediate feedback in the form of daily calorie and macro reports (Hutchesson et al., 2015). But some people find them cumbersome. In a recent scientific study, MyFitnessPal users reported that it was difficult to estimate portion sizes for their favorite foods, stating the food database inside the app doesn’t have easy-to-use household measures (Teixeira et al., 2018).
A few other apps to track your daily food intake include the Fitbit app, Fat Secret, Lose It!, and Spark People.
- The Fitbit app has 3.9 of 5 stars in the Google Play Store and 3.7 stars in the App Store. Most of the complaints deal with the app not syncing with activity trackers. However, if you’re only tracking meals then you should be good to go, as none of the reviews has any complaints about the food database. Cost: Free
- For simply tracking calories in and calories out, the FatSecret app seems to satisfy many of its users’ needs with 4.4 out of 5 stars in the Google Play Store and 4.7 stars in the App Store for Apple. One user said, “Not only for personal use, but I put all of my clients in the app as it sends me reports daily. Love the macros are so easy to track!” Cost: In-app purchases $0.99 - $44.99
- Lose It! by Fit Now Inc. has a good overall rating (4.4/4.7 stars) but some users complain that the food database is difficult to navigate and that tracking macros is a paid, rather than free feature. Cost: Free - $39.99/year subscription
- Spark People Calorie Counter and Diet Tracker (4.5/4.6 stars) has some of the most positive user comments regarding the food database and ease of use. An added bonus, mentioned by one user, is the encouragement and interaction you get from other “Sparklers”. Cost: $4.99 - $29.99
If you prefer old-fashioned pen and paper, you can find printable food journals for sale online or create your own. Keep in mind, you’ll have to find an adequate food database to break down each meal and food item into calories and macros.
Does Food Logging Help You Lose Weight?
In a word, yes.
In a recent ISSA blog article, How does Mindfulness Achieve Weight Loss?, the author demonstrates how mindfulness can help you make goal-related decisions and create healthier habits. One part of this process is asking questions to uncover if the motivation to eat—or craving—is triggered by hunger or some underlying emotion or circumstance. As a trainer, this is a great way to get to know your client while helping them uncover a root of the problem.
You can’t make the right choices to achieve a weight loss goal until you get to know your current habits. That is where a food journal can help. Although you don’t need to track your food choices for the rest of your life, practicing this skill periodically will help you and your clients
- learn the correct serving size for each food group to meet your specific needs,
- identify gaps in your current diet so you can supplement as needed,
- make the right choices to meet your goals whether they are to gain or lose weight.
And remember, you can learn more about building better food habits and using nutrition to enhance your clients’ lives through the ISSA’s Fitness Nutrition Certification.
Click HERE to download this handout and share with your clients!
http://changingminds.org/explanations/theories/cognitive_dissonance.htm. Cognitive Dissonance. Accessed 11/7/2018.
Hutchesson, M.J., PhD, APD, Rollo, M.E., PhD, APD, Callister, R., PhD, MSc, Collins, C.E., PhD. Self-Monitoring of Dietary Intake by Young Women: Online Food Records Completed on Computer or Smartphone Are as Accurate as Paper-Based Food Records but More Acceptable. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2015-01-01, Volume 115, Issue 1, Pages 87-94.
Teixeira, V., Voci, S. M., Mendes-Netto, R. S. and da Silva, D. G. (2018), The relative validity of a food record using the smartphone application MyFitnessPal. Nutr Diet, 75: 219-225. doi:10.1111/1747-0080.12401
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